"I just want everyone to know who Matthew LaPlante is...
Matthew LaPlante isn't a journalist. He's out to hurt you... I believe this man is an ideologue who's out to hurt you, and he shouldn't be working in any major newspaper."
- Bill O'Reilly



ON SACRED SOIL

By Matthew D. LaPlante

The Salt Lake Tribune

Oct. 4, 2010

Sulaimaniyah, Iraq • Colleen Parkin had taken no more than three steps onto Iraqi soil when her legs collapsed beneath her.

She fell to the ground, weeping.

But when she rose, she wore a smile as bright as the desert sun.

"I could feel him here," Parkin would later say. "Immediately, I could feel my son was here."

More than five years after the death of Cpl. Matthew Smith in Iraq, an airplane carrying the fallen Marine's mother and a delegation of women who have shared her sorrow touched down at a small airport in the northeast corner of this war-torn country.

One by one they stepped off the aircraft. One by one they touched the sacred soil of the nation in which their children served and sacrificed.

And one by one they began seeking out the spirits of their sons and daughters.

•••

Under the current "status of forces" agreement between the United States and Iraq, the American military has a little more than one year before it leaves the nation it invaded in 2003 and has occupied ever since. The war in Iraq has claimed the lives of more than 4,400 American military members.

A brutal regime has been overthrown. A vast insurgency has been beaten back. But even under the most optimistic projections, there will be much left in disarray when the Americans leave.

Much of the nation remains entrenched in violence and disorder. The Iraqi army is not battle-ready. The Iraqi government is stymied by corruption and at a political impasse. Ethnic and sectarian divisions threaten to restoke the flames of a smoldering civil war.

For Parkin, the legacy of her son is inexorably tied to the future of the nation in which he died. "I feel like I gave my son to them," she said. "He shed his blood for them. I want them to succeed. I need them to."

Discontent with leaving matters in the hands of history, the mothers of 11 sons and daughters who served here, including nine who died during their tours of duty, joined a first-of-its-kind mission to Iraq. Their goal: to continue serving on their children's behalf.

The journey began on a Thursday morning in September at Salt Lake City International Airport, where Parkin and fellow Gold Star mothers Amy Galvez and Jan Moncur checked bags loaded with school supplies, handmade clothing and other gifts intended for Iraqis in need.

Four hours later, the Utah trio met up with a larger delegation from South Carolina in Atlanta, where the sad sisterhood embraced and, almost immediately, began sharing the stories that have come to define many of their lives.

Those stories were all different, but their pain was very much the same. And when contacted by a Virginia-based nonprofit, Families United Toward Universal Respect, which works to empower women in Iraq to foster community change and was seeking the support of a delegation of Gold Star mothers to assist that effort in Iraq, each had the same thought:

"Our sons' service had ended," Moncur said. "And now we felt like we had an opportunity to serve, too."

After two long days of travel, Families United founder Joan Betros stood in the aisle of a Royal Jordanian aircraft and waved for the attention of her bleary-eyed fellow travelers. "In the next four minutes," she said, "we're going to be entering Iraqi airspace."

Thirty thousand feet above Iraq, the small band of women reached across aisles and over seats to join hands. They embraced. They cried.

Their journey had only begun.

•••

It didn't take long for Parkin to find the boy she'd lost. As she fell upon the airport tarmac, she wrapped her arms around a soft, fleece blanket emblazoned with the U.S. Marine Corps logo. "And it felt just like he was there with me," Parkin said. "It was like he had his arms around me. And I was just so grateful to be here."

For others, the search was longer, harder.

The two-week journey flew by in a dust storm of meetings, meals, media, movement. Among the thousands upon thousands of parents who have lost a child in Iraq, there is perhaps just a handful who have visited the nation where their children died ­— mostly as the guests of the U.S. military on heavily-fortified bases.

No one had ever brought an entire delegation of such parents to Iraq ­— let alone for the cause of charity.

"We just felt as though this needed to be done," Betros said. "These are women who have a real stake in this country."

The audacity of the effort struck a chord with some of Iraq's most powerful people.

At the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the ruling party of Iraq's Kurdish Autonomous Region, party executive Mala Baxtiar told the mothers that he was humbled by their desire to help the people of his nation. "We know the honesty of your commitment," he said, "because we know the depth of your sacrifice."

At a military training base near the Iranian border, Sheik Jafar Mustafa Ali, minister for the Kurds' famed Peshmerga fighting force, told the Gold Star group that his fighters would still be waging a guerilla war from the mountains of northern Iraq if it were not for their sacrifice. "We will never forget what you have done for us," he said. "You are like our own mothers."

And at the home of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, first lady Hero Talabani told her guests that their visit to Iraq would inspire the people of her nation to let go of their personal struggles to embrace their responsibility to one another.

"You have honored us with what you have given before and with what you are giving now," she said. "We will strive to follow your example of selflessness."

Not everyone's stories were easy to hear.

The American war effort in Iraq has been vastly popular among Iraq's Kurds, who owe their autonomy to U.S. intervention in their nation. But many in Iraq's majority Arab population believe the American invasion opened a Pandora's box of problems — problems that the U.S. military does not appear to be able to fix in the short time it has remaining in Iraq.

"Saddam was a terrible man, an evil monster. He killed my father and my brothers," said Selwa Azer, the headmistress of the Al Mekaasb School for Girls in Baghdad. "So maybe it will sound crazy when I say that things were better before 2003, but that is the case. Today there is no security in Iraq. There is very little hope. And everyone is in danger."

After a brutal sectarian civil war that claimed tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, the nation has enjoyed an increased level of stability during the past two years. But violence has mounted in recent months. More than 270 people were killed last month as a result of ongoing violence, including 29 who died in a two simultaneous car bomb attacks in Baghdad on Sept. 19.

Among the thousands wounded in the violence: four of Azer's students who were badly hurt when a bomb exploded near her school. She fears that a new war — worse than anything in the past — could be on the horizon.

Moncur agrees. "It frightens me terribly," she said. Her son, Philip Christensen, served a tour of duty in Iraq in 2003 and was training for a second tour when he was killed in a tank accident at Fort Riley, Kan. "Now that we've looked into these people's eyes, how can we let this happen to them?"

•••

Moncur knows she cannot change the course of history.

All she wants to do now is change a few lives.

And in Sulaimaniyah, she found no shortage of opportunities to do just that.

Officials say the city has grown by as many as 500,000 residents in the past decade, particularly as Kurdish refugees from more dangerous parts of the country have sought a life with greater security in northern Iraq.

At Hiwa Hospital, doctors are struggling to keep up with the medical demands of the booming population. Paint is peeling from hallway walls lined with patients. Doctors rush from bed to bed. Old men and women lie shivering under thin blankets while awaiting treatment.

Aggravating matters is a high rate of cancer, a problem that administrators at Hiwa believe is at least partly the result of Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons in his Anfal campaign against Kurdish rebel fighters and civilians between 1986 and 1989. The most notorious of Saddam's assaults came in the town of Halabja, where 5,000 people were killed in a chemical bomb attack on March 16, 1988.

Standing amid hundreds of photographs of the victims — some who fell dead without any sign of injury, others with peeling skin, boils and blisters — at the Monument of Halabja Martyrs, Moncur said she felt as though she could understand, better than ever before, why her son wanted to serve in Iraq. And she was emboldened to do what she believes he would have done.

"We can't change everything," she said. "But we can take action. We can go back and tell people about what we learned here. And we can work to help these people."

One doctor at Hiwa told Moncur that breast cancer is rampant among her patients, but her hospital doesn't have a mammogram machine. "And that's something we can change," Moncur said. "It's just one thing, but it's one thing that would make a tremendous difference in the lives of so many people."

•••

As many parents do, Amy Galvez always believed her son, Adam, had a special purpose in life.

"I didn't know what it was, I didn't know how it would come out, but I just had this feeling about Adam," she said.

The young Marine was serving with the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in Rahwah, in western Iraq, when the building he was in was destroyed in a suicide truck bombing on July 28, 2006. Though he was injured in the attack, which claimed the lives of four other Marines, Galvez refused medical evacuation.

The circumstances of her son's escape from more serious injury or death in the attack steeled in Galvez the sense that the young Marine was meant to do something great. So when he died in a roadside bomb attack on his first day back on combat duty, Galvez was incredulous.

"So there I was," she said. "I had two Marines standing in my living room. One of them was reading the report, and I was only halfway listening because I just couldn't fathom it. Where was his special purpose?"

Standing on a hillside overlooking Iraq's Lake Dukan, Galvez shared communion with many of the women in her group. They broke bread. They sang. They prayed. They cried.

Galvez said she walked away with a new sense of direction in her life. She said she does not want her son's legacy to be held hostage by war, politics and the whims of history. And now she knows it doesn't have to be.

Now, she said, she is part of that legacy.

"What happened when Adam died was bigger than one Marine, one family," she said. "There was a bigger picture. And it turns out God had a plan. I just didn't know that sending me to Iraq was part of that plan."